The death penalty is cruel, wastes money and makes fools of perfectly good men and women. Abolishing it makes both economic and moral sense. But will abolition play in the Legislature, where passion rules and reason is often an unwelcome guest?
The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee approved a measure abolishing the penalty by a vote of 24-13. The bill now goes to the House and Senate. If it is approved there, Gov. M. Jodi Rell will have to decide whether hold her rage-mongering snout and sign off on the bill for it to become law.
The only time the death penalty has been used in Connecticut since 1960 was in the case of Michael Ross. And he was only killed because he engaged in a game of existential chess, outsmarting the state and sneering from the grave in triumph. Ross, you will recall, withdrew his claims for post-conviction relief, throwing lawyers into a dither. Was he insane to make such a choice? The true believers thought so. They fought him, looking to substitute his will for theirs. Just before he was killed he mailed a letter to a psychiatrist who opined that Ross was incapable of making such momentous decisions. "Checkmate," Ross wrote to the physician. The letter arrived after Ross’ death. It was a move worthy of one of Satan’s lieutenants in Paradise Lost.
The rest of the folks on death row have either been there for a long, long time or can look forward to a decade or two of litigation before their cases, and perhaps their lives, come to an end. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep them healthy and well, so that some sunny day we can kill them in self-righteous glee.
But the real expense comes in litigating these cases. It costs millions to fight one from start to finish. Inevitably, the defendant is represented by a Public Defender. Motions, hearings, claims, arguments, appeals, petitions, examinations, experts, all pursued with the passion of an apostle and fought with the vigor of a Renaissance Pope. The war wearies everyone and yields merely great sport: Lawyers and judges in the role of Baron von Frankenstein, raising contesting claims to life itself.
The legislation pending in Hartford would simply declare that the penalty for a capital felony is life without the possibility of parole. Period. There would be a trial on guilt; the penalty phase of this litigation would end, and so would the need to sift through every record, whether public of not, that recounts the sorry life and times of the defendant. The cost of litigating death claims would disappear.
Abolishing the death penalty would also be good for the mental health of lawyers. An entire industry has arisen to support death penalty litigation. Defense counsel dedicate themselves to it as though it were a priesthood. In the war to save a life, the end justifies the means. The state becomes a murderer; lies are told, sometimes by the lawyers themselves; legal doctrine is twisted like so much putty, pressed to fill the howling sense of desperation felt by those who conclude they are called to save life at any cost. I’ve seen good friends become mere caricatures when lured by the Siren of a capital case. Set these poor souls free, I say. Death is different. The law should not play a game for which we are not equipped.
The criminal law has four purposes: general deterrence, specific deterrence, rehabilitation and punishment. As a society we have apparently decided that some defendants cannot be rehabilitated. I do not agree with that assessment. But even if I am wrong, it is obscene to kill a person convicted of a crime. It mocks justice. It does not deter folks at large: Capital offenses keep occurring, even as death mills in Southern states stack corpses like so much lumber.
Lifetime incarceration incapacitates the convicted; it deters as well or better than death. It costs less. And, it will make for better law. Only a politician addicted to rage will fail to see that.
Abolish the death penalty. Save money. Eliminate sometimes silly litigation. It is a tort reformer’s dream come true.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.